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Snakes in a Nuclear Plant

We can settle issues of risk, but we cannot settle fear – at least, not without a great deal of effort. If you are afraid of snakes, you’re afraid of snakes – your snake loving friends won’t understand, but there it is. If you don’t live in a snaky area, the fear will never show itself, but if you do, it may cripple you socially. But in general, people recognize their fears without letting them guide their destiny. And don’t live in towns called Snakeville.

There’s a basis for the fear in reality – snakes bite and can be poisonous - but the risk of being bitten by a poisonous snake is exceedingly small.


But there are other fears and though you could choose not to live in Nuclearville, why should you?:

The results are in and Cape Cod residents have spoken. Last night Falmouth, Yarmouth, Brewster, Orleans and Harwich voters passed a public advisory question to call on Governor Patrick to request the Nuclear Regulatory Commission uphold their mandate to close the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station because the public safety of Cape Cod cannot be assured.

This was  a second vote. Other towns voted at a different time and the same way. The effort to kick out Pilgrim is spearheaded by a group called Cape Downwinders, who I guess have done an exceptionally good job of inducing fear in their neighbors.

The mission of Cape Downwinders is to take action to protect the lives and welfare of the residents of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket against the threat of death or injury resulting from the use of nuclear energy at Pilgrim and other locations.

There is no safe level of radiation.

That’ll be news to the local medical community, as we’ll see. But let’s stick to Pilgrim: How many people on Cape Cod have been harmed by radiation? You already know the answer to that one: none. Pilgrim has shut down to fix issues, but did any of these outages release radiation or cause other hardship? No.

Pilgrim, which is owned by Entergy Corp. of Louisiana, first lost power Friday night when three offsite power lines were knocked out of service during the storm, according to regulatory filings and the NRC. The plant was taken offline, and diesel generators powered its safety systems. Electricity temporarily returned to the plant on Sunday morning, but went out again when plant operators believe a transformer was struck by falling ice.

This was in February and was the worst I could find – and it’s a pretty big stretch. Did this cause hardship beyond what the storm did? Wouldn’t seem so; if power lines are getting knocked down and ice is raining down, there’s not much point in keeping the plant thrumming along.


Interestingly, a recent report addresses the risks of exposure to ionizing radiation, issued by the Health Physics Society. This isn’t a group likely to be in the tank for dangerous, risky activities, so there’s credibility here.

This collection of papers, Radiation Risk: Expert Perspective, addresses the every- day role of radiation in energy and medicine, how we are exposed to it and how risk is managed and approached through science and responsible policy. The experts explain how we are constantly exposed to radiation from sources all around us, those man-made and those occurring naturally, from space to our food, and how much each contributes to our limited overall exposure.

To be honest, it’s unusual to see a report that treats radiation in medicine, food production and electricity production as part of a continuity of beneficial nuclear energy. It’s always been more convenient to yoke electricity production to weaponry because the former grew out of Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace initiative, which envisioned domestic nuclear energy as a counter to the, um, military-industrial complex (a famous but different Eisenhower locution used in a different context).

But of course, it is a more natural fit as HPS has it. These are key beneficial uses of nuclear energy, the poles of atoms for peace. The articles are genuinely interesting and written to be understood by a general audience. Here is Dr. Bernard Cohen, a long time radiation risk specialist on stowing used nuclear fuel:

Scientists know how rocks behave and there is every reason to expect this glass-rock container for high-level radioactive waste will behave similarly. All ordinary rocks contain radioactive materials, and analyses demonstrate that we can calculate the probability for an atom of these to find its way, via groundwater transport, into our food and water supplies. For rocks at the burial depth of glass-enclosed radioactive waste, this probability is about one chance in a trillion per year. From that we calculate that all the byproducts produced by America’s nuclear power plants will eventually cause less than one death per year in the U.S. population. Compare this with the many thousands of deaths per year caused by air pollution from burning coal to produce electricity.

That’s less risk than getting bitten by a snake (I think).

And here is Dr. Louis Wagner on medical radiation:

The American Cancer Society recently reported that cancer death rates in the United States have continued to decline over the past two decades (American Cancer Society 2012). The medical community will continue to refine its use of radiation in medical imaging and other nuclear medical technologies for diagnosis and treatment to improve health care and increase our life expectancy.

Increase, Cape Downwinders, not decrease.

It’s a terrific report and worth your attention if you’re interested in radiation and risk – it’s a large topic and this is a good primer. NEI has a useful page about this, too, that’s a nice supplement to the HPS report.


The Cape Downwinders can go a little overboard in its opposition:

Entergy Corporation could be could be liable for up to $831,325,000.00 in civil penalties for polluting Cape Cod Bay at its Pilgrim nuclear reactor. According to a letter sent to the company and federal officials on October 5, 2012 by local residents, since 1996, there have been 33,253 violations of the federal Clean Water Act. Entergy could liable for a $25,000.00 civil penalty for each violation.

And Entergy could be liable for $1 billion trillion because it failed to chase away the snakes on Pilgrim’s grounds - more than once.


Note: Only the NRC can close a nuclear plant for safety reasons and, of course, Entergy can shutter Pilgrim. Entergy may need to step up its outreach to Cape Codders to counteract the reign of fear from the downwinders, but that’s it.  Pilgrim is in no danger of closing, snakes or no snakes.


jimwg said…
Very good yet sobering report!

It's very difficult to make a remark here without sounding haughty or condescending or cockily complacent toward a group of communities, but to me, the most alarming and dismaying indicator here is that, against all hard fact and diligent research and professional expertise in nuclear science, that such an overwhelming anti-nuclear vote must inevitably have its passions and opinions rooted in, yes, ignorance, abetted by blind gullibility to suave fear-stroking nightmare-feeding malicious misinformation and colored assertions often laced with subtle political agendas and even seeded with historical biases and guilts stretching back to banishing the atom for what unique evils perpetuated at Hiroshima. I soberly wonder just how unchallenged the Downwinder FUDmongers were as they infected Cape Cod with Pied Piper comfort to rid way too many fretful souls of the wild nuclear rats infesting their sleep. Did anyone - any teacher or doctor or engineer attending all these referendum village halls ever or dare question the uncertified facts and spiel and Doomsday speculations of the "Downwinders"? To see, in lieu all the nuclear facts and scientific evidence, such an anonymous vote based on sheer unexamined proofless fear isn't any uplifting display of democracy by an enlightened citizenry, but a very grim sign of reason and fact gone MIA and the deplorable state of science -- never mind nuclear -- education in this country. It is a dismaying omen that goes far beyond just the issue of Pilgrim, especially in light that America is nearly dependent on importing technical and science expertise because the wells of our schools are running low. Where New York City Science fairs haven't even seen a nuclear energy exhibit among thousands of students for over twenty years. Maybe long overdue nuclear education PSAs and Ads and TV spots just isn't enough now. If Entergy -- or the nuclear community as whole -- ever plans on community "outreach" to counteract fear, it may have to start by tearing down the schools and starting all over again.

James Greenidge
Queens NY
Anonymous said…
Cohen's comparison of nuclear waste risks to air pollution risks from fossil fuels is not a fair comparison.

One should either compare the full cycle risk (from mining through waste disposal) of each fuel source per energy delivered, or a specific area of interest from each fuel source, like waste to waste or air emissions to air emissions.

Cohen was not a radiation risk expert. He fabricated a study to get people to believe radon was good for you. He was associated with the Marshall Institute, which is the subject of the book, "Merchants Of Doubt".

I'm an ANS & HPS member and I chided the HPS President already, not just for including Cohen, but for having that collection of papers.

One author claims there is credible evidence for hormesis (there's not) and one claims the evidence for a threshold is weak (there's not any, unless he's being kind), and another discusses the scientific consensus of LNT.

If you didn't know any better in the first place, how does that clear things up on risk?

They should all be parroting the scientific consensus. The Earth isn't warming and cooling and staying the same temperature. The scientific consensus is the Earth is warming.

Bob Applebaum
Anonymous said…
While some snakes are venomous thery are rarely poisonous (and often good eating).
Don Kosloff said…
The full-cycle risks have been evaluated more than once. Coal kills, simple as that. That is shown by actual bodies, not hypothetical deaths. Compare Buffalo Hollow or Donora to Fukishima or Chernobyl. Compare Willow Island to Three Mile Island.

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